Turn in your Bibles to Luke 16 and we’ll be looking at verses 1 to 13 of Luke, chapter 16. I was speaking the other day with someone. Both of us were expressing appreciation for all that the Lord taught us in Luke 15. The parable of the Prodigal Son. I had great joy in studying that section and preaching and teaching it. I feel a, a small tinge of sadness at leaving that beautiful, rich, richly textured layered story behind with its profound insights into the kindness of God in Christ.
I know you probably feel some of that too, but I was soon jolted right out of my wistfulness by the parable that we’re looking at today called the parable of the unjust steward or the parable of the dishonest manager. Now I see why scholars and exegetes have referred to this as the most notoriously difficult of all Jesus’ parables. So far that’s been my experience.
But by the grace of God, I think that I have my mind around this and my arms around this. I trust the Lord will help me to explain it to all of you in a way that you can understand. As always, the Lord is the judge of my efforts, but all of you are the judges of my clarity, so we’ll see how this goes. But we’ll start as we usually like to do by reading the opening section, which is Luke 16:1-13. We’ll plan to interpret the parable today, verses 1 to 8 and then we’ll look to the implications of the parable next week, which is the rest of it.
Let’s read the whole thing now. “He’s, he also said, Jesus also said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. He called him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do since my master is taking the management away from me? I’m not strong enough to dig and I’m ashamed to beg. I’ve decided what I, what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.”
“‘So summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He said, “A hundred measures of oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly and write fifty.” He said to another, “And how much do you owe?” He said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and write eighty.” The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
“‘For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? If you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters for either he, either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’”
I’m told that preaching on money is a sensitive topic. One that preachers naturally shy away from and probably should stay away from. Some seem to believe the preacher should address the subject of money only, maybe in like a self-help fashion. Like giving Dave Ramsey seminars and that kind of thing. Giving people practical tips on budgeting and advice for financial planning and the like.
But really confronting people about money. Preacher makes demands on people’s money. And it’s considered out of bounds, off limits. As going too far, as maybe looking like a health, wealth and prosperity preacher. For many, when they hear the preacher tackle the subject of money and finances and challenging the church, that’ll be the last Sunday they attend your church if you talk about money. That’s actually happened here. And I remember it’s happened a number of times.
I remember talking to a certain woman and she loved everything about our church. She loved the preaching, the friendliness, the sense of community, the sense of you know, mission, and all the things that she said. She loved it, what she couldn’t stand though, after visiting church after church after church after church in the community. She couldn’t stand all these preachers. They seem to want, all they want was her money. Couldn’t tell that she was rich as far as I knew, but she found this incessant appeal from all these churches. She found that incessant appeal for money intolerable. So we’re talking in the very next Sunday. Guess what the topic of the sermon was? I wasn’t preaching that Sunday, but I do remember the sermon was on biblical stewardship, on giving. Didn’t see her again.
Look, I get it though. It is the stock and trade of false teachers to go after people’s money. To bilk the guilty and the gullible for all that they can get away with. They promise them health, wealth and prosperity. Promise them forgiveness. Promise them a lessening of a guilt and lessening of a burden just if they’ll write that check and hand money over. They’re going to take them for all that they can. It’s a criminal enterprise in the name of religion, in the name of Christ.
And I think it’s a tactic of Satan to despoil the good reputation of all true churches that are dealing obediently with the subject and with the text of Scripture. When the subject of money comes up in the text, listen. That is what we’re going to cover. This is his church. It’s his word. And so it’s his agenda that sets our agenda. We just be obedient and as we can see in this text, and if you’ve ever looked at the rest of the chapter, this is about money. It’s about people’s attitudes about money, toward money. How people use money. How people misuse money.
“It is the stock and trade of false teachers to go after people’s money.”Travis Allen
And I know this chapter is going to provoke you. And I pray that what Jesus says here in this chapter will not leave you unchanged. Because Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Where’s your treasure? Where’s your heart? The Pharisees, as we see in the very next verse after what we read there. Verse 14, the Pharisees were lovers of money. And notice that they reacted by ridiculing Jesus teaching. But they did not change.
Others, perhaps less volatile than the Pharisees, but they, too, were indifferent to his teaching. They left unchanged. I am praying that Jesus’ teaching here softens and instructs our hearts. I’m praying that his teaching will inform our thinking and inform our will. I’m praying that his teaching directs our giving. In verse one, as Luke, the narrator, briefly sets the scene, you can see that he intends us to view these two chapters, Luke 15 and Luke 16. He wants us to see these two chapters as connected. They are. They’re connected. Jesus delivered the teaching of these two chapters on the same occasion.
The previous teaching was delivered or directed to the Pharisees to answer their criticisms that came up in Luke 15:2. And then in 16:1, Luke tells us “he also said to the disciples,” so it’s the same crowd, same occasion. But Jesus has shifted the focus of his teaching to instruct those who are following along after him. Ostensibly so following him, but they’re following him. So the twelve disciples, obviously they’re in view at the very least, but there are also other men and women who are his true disciples.
But as is usual, there are also those who are following along after Jesus in their, their true nature, whether they’re disciples or not, their true nature has yet to be revealed. And so this parable is meant to instruct true disciples, those who will discern the true meaning. But it’s also going to serve, as parables always do, to sift and to separate the false disciples from the true. Those who fail to discern the meaning of the parable, they will lose interest, and they will fall away. We also know, as we go back from, in targeted in this parable, the target of Jesus teaching.
We know from Luke 15:1-2, “As the tax collectors and the sinners are coming to him,” they’re also the ever present Pharisees and scribes that are there. They’re always there to check up on him. Always there to, ready to criticize him and depose him before the people. We see in verse 14, the Pharisees loved money, but they’re not the only ones who loved money. How did the tax collectors, after all, how did they start down the road that led to their total betrayal of their countrymen?
Collaborating with the hated pagan Romans who were occupying their land. How did they get down that road? How did they start down that road in the first place? Because they loved money. So because they were rich already and loved money is because they were poor and loved money, and they saw this as a pathway to getting money for themselves. Listen, we know this to be true, don’t we? You don’t have to be rich to be a lover of money. In fact, I’d know a number of rich people that don’t love money at all, very generous people. I find sometimes that it’s the poorest who are the greatest lovers of money.
We can see no one. Young or old, rich or poor, female or male, no one is immune from this form of idolatry called the love of money. “Love, of which is the root of all kinds of evil.” As Paul says, in 1 Timothy 6:10. Paul tells us in that text, 1 Timothy 6, that by craving money, or we could say more accurately, by craving what money provides, by craving the sense of freedom that money seems to give. The, the pleasures that it pays for. The distractions that it buys, the toys and the trips and the vacations that it purchases. The feeling of self-worth that money seems to give. The, the worldly esteem that money seems to bring. “By craving that, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
So this week and next, we’re going to see how the Lord wants us to use money. After that, we’re going to see how hypocrites use money. And then the warning in the story about the rich man and Lazarus. Now we are because of the, the date on the calendar, we’re running up against the Christmas season. But we’ll just see what we can get done in the next few weeks and we’ll have to piece it together as we, as we go here. But for today, as we consider how the Lord wants us to use money, Jesus tells us a story of a landowner and his wasteful manager. Or we could call him the prodigal steward.
The charge against him in verse two. It says, “This man was wasting his possessions.” That’s that verb diaskorpizó. It’s the same verb that was used of the prodigal son back in Luke 15:13, where he went to a foreign land and squandered his father’s possessions. Same verb, same idea. Definitely one of the several points that connect these two chapters, but the point Jesus is making as he teaches his disciples is that it’s not okay for prodigals to continue to act like prodigals. If they’re coming to him, they need to drop that prodigal nature. Stop squandering, stop wasting, stop acting like prodigals.
Discipleship means stewardship. And all of us, listen, no matter where we come from. Whether we come from the lowbrow company of tax collectors and sinners. Or whether we come from the highbrow company of Pharisees and scribes, many of the Pharisees themselves were land owners. Many of them were wealthy businessmen. The scribes were highly educated. So whether we come from the lowbrow, gutter trash, trailer trash, whatever, or we come from the highbrow. From the academic elites and all the social elites.
Listen, all of us are prodigals. We’re all prodigals because of the biblical principle of stewardship, namely that God owns everything. And we own nothing. We’re simply managers of resources that God entrust to us. So I understand there is, biblically speaking, there is such thing as property ownership. There is money ownership, there is power and authority for us to do with that property and money what we’re supposed to do. That’s the basis of law. It’s the basis of property law. It’s the basis of a charge of theft, and graft and embezzlement and all the rest is because somebody owns something and you can’t just take what doesn’t belong to you.
That’s why socialism is bad. Cause it is fundamentally a system of theft. Of stealing. Listen, we need to understand more fundamentally, more basic to that, is the fact that God owns everything. We own nothing. He entrusts to us what we have, he entrusts to some more, and to others less. That’s by his good and sovereign and wise design. It’s for his purposes. So for us to complain about what somebody else has and we don’t. Like this whole social justice thing of oppressor and oppressed, and victims and victimizers and all the rest. It’s fundamentally based on greed. It’s fundamentally those who have less who are coveting and desiring. They’re loving money and they want to get it from those who have earned it. Or those who have inherited it.
All of us though, it doesn’t matter if we’re Christian or non-Christian, everybody on this earth. We are stewards of what God has given to us. God has entrusted resources to us in every single person on this planet. And every time and every place in history is going to give an account to God for their stewardship. We, too, as Christians. We need to think about that, because now that we’re saved, as I said, discipleship means stewardship. Discipleship means now we’re awakened to our stewardship. Now we have, because of the regeneration of the spirit, because we have a new nature given to us from God. Because we’ve been set free from our sins, because we’re born again, because we have been justified, declared righteous by God because of the perfect work of Jesus Christ.
Now, we understand, we come into the reality. We are, as Jesus called us, in verse 8, we are sons of light, that is, the light has been turned on for us. Now we understand what, that we have a stewardship. That our money is not our own. It’s to be used for his purposes. Everything we have is a stewardship from God and we all will give an account to him for how we have managed what he’s entrusted to us.
John Calvin says that it is, quote, “It is certain that no man is so frugal as not sometimes to waste the property which has been entrusted to him. Even those who practice the most rigid economy are not entirely free from the charge of unfaithful stewardship. Add to this, that there are so many ways of abusing the gifts of God. Some incur guilt in one way and some in another.” End quote. What Calvin says is pastorally wise. We all have a lot to learn about our stewardship before God. And we all want to as Christians particularly, we have, we want to give him a good account in the end, don’t we?
So in going through this chapter together, we’re going to see that since we’re all prodigals in some sense. And prior to salvation, all of us, no matter highbrow, lowbrow anything in between, all of us are prodigals. So we all need to confess the sin of squandering resources God has entrusted to us. We all need to come to a place where we repent. So we need to listen attentively today. We need to learn from our Lord and we need to learn to obey him in this. And we will find that his way of stewardship, the greatest blessing on earth apart from our salvation. It’s the greatest blessing. Cheerful joy, gratitude comes out of exercising a good and righteous stewardship before God.
So Jesus begins his instruction with another parable. It tells about a landowner and his wasteful manager. And we can see just to speak to the structure a little bit in those first eight verses. We can see that verses 1-8 are laid out in literary chiasm. A chiasm, that’s a chi or a chi, is the Greek letter, like looks like an X to us. With that X, with the, the outside stanzas of that X are parallel. And as you get closer to the center, you’ve got parallel stanzas. And then you get to the, right to the center, and that’s the main meat of whatever is in the middle. The main meat is there.
So we see verse 1 introduces us to the owner and the manager and verse 8 then at the end, parallel thought, it provides us with the owner’s reaction to the manager. So owner and manager verse 1, owner and manager verse 8. The next set of stanzas are parallel as well. Verses 2-3 portray the manager’s problem. What is his problem? He’s out of a job. Verses 5-7 show him trying to solve that problem, trying to fix the problem of not having a job. The central stanza, then, is verse 4 and the central stanza is this man’s, what we might call his eureka moment.
This is showing us in this moment of clarity as he, put it in the prodigal son terms, he comes to himself. Shows us his motivation. That’s what, that is at the center. What’s his motivation? Look at verse 4, “It’s in order that,” it’s a purpose clause there, “In order that people may receive me into their houses.” Jesus comes back to that. He revisits that central point when he comes to verse 9 and starts applying this and working out the implications for us. He says in verse 9, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth,” he’s pointing back to the prodigal, “in order that,” that’s another purpose clause, “When it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” That’s the central idea found in verse 4 and then repeated in verse 9 as he starts to work out the implications.
So that basic structure in mind, let’s get into the details of the parable. It starts with point one. You’re writing this down here’s for your notes, number one, an existential emergency. An existential emergency. You look again at verse 1, it says, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.”
I mentioned earlier this is a notoriously difficult parable to interpret, primarily due to our distance from the culture. Our distance from the economic practices of, that Jesus assumes in the parable here, but you got to understand everybody in the audience listening to Jesus on this particular occasion, they’re going to be tracking with this parable with no problem whatsoever. In fact, they would be loving this story. It’s not a story about virtue, as we can plainly see, but rather we see in here characterize the impish cleverness of the main character, who is a scoundrel. Do we find stories about scoundrels interesting? You bet we do.
Jesus introduces us though, first to the aggrieved party. An extremely wealthy man, this man is the owner of vast tracts of farmland. Many thousands of acres that he rents out to tenant farmers, and these farmers paid rent. There’s a fixed price of the produce, such as we see there, olive oil and wheat. And then that’s just two of the representative crops that are produced on his land.
If you scan down to verse 6, you can see the rent for one farmer, it says, is a hundred measures of oil. That’s his original bill, his rent. One hundred measures of oil. That’s about eight hundred and seventy five gallons of olive oil, worth about a thousand denarii, which is, a denarius is a day’s wage. So the rent a thousand denarii is about a three years wages for a day laborer. Three years wages paid his rent to farm on this guy’s land. If we estimate about twenty bucks an hour, this tenant farmer was paying nearly one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to grow and harvest olives on this man’s farmland. Pretty big bill, isn’t it?
Down in verse 7, the rent for another farmer is a hundred measures of wheat, the term for measure there is core which is between ten and twelve bushels. So one hundred cores of wheat is about a thousand, twelve hundred bushels of wheat that he paid the landowner in rent. A thousand bushels of wheat was the yield of about a hundred acres of land. So before modern farming, that’s not too bad. That was a worth of between twenty five hundred and three thousand denarii, which is at the low end. That’s about seven years’ worth of wages. So again, estimating twenty bucks an hour, that tenant farmer’s paying, at least at the low end, three hundred and fifty thousand dollars to grow wheat on this man’s land.
So if you put, just try to step back from that, what this means is if you think about the high rents, this represents huge acreage. This guy’s estate is vast. There’s lots of olives and wheat. This is a vast farming enterprise. Rents like this mean these tenant farmers, they themselves are very wealthy men as well. They’re basically, you need to understand, these are basically partners with the landowner. They’re cooperating with him in this huge operation. Selling hundreds of gallons of olive oil, thousands of bushels of wheat. It’s not just olive oil and wheat, probably other crops as well, but keep in mind these tenants that we meet in verses 6-7, they’re, they’re just two of the debtors that the manager here has called in.
An operation on this scale of this size could have been half a dozen or more tenants farming on this man’s land, paying rent, and all of them making a profit together. So again, Jesus is telling a story and he’s telling a story that has magnanimous, huge proportions to it. This is something that everybody in the crowd is like imagining this hugely, wealthy person. He’s introduced us to an extremely wealthy man. And it’s one who obviously requires the services of a very skilled, very competent steward, such as this steward.
Stewards, managers, the term is oikonómos. Oikonómos can refer to several different kinds of managers, managers of households. They, they provide oversight to the household slaves like the one we met back in Luke 12:42. Oikonómos can refer to a civic official, like a city treasurer. We see that in Erastus, mentioned he’s ministering there with Paul in Rome, Romans, 16:23. But here this oikonómos refers to an estate manager. This is a legally authorized agent of the owner. This man has authority to broker contracts. He’s like these rental agreements with the tenant farmers. He’s responsible for keeping track of all, of all the accounts he’s responsible to collect rent when it’s due.
Now this land owner, clearly portrayed here as a gentleman farmer. He’s a respected man in the community. He’s trustworthy. He’s an honorable man, and we know that quite simply because if he weren’t, other wealthy men would not be willing to do business with him. They do business with men that they trust. This man is trustworthy. Someone, we can see in verse 1, again to commend this land owner to us. Someone, according to verse 1, is looking out for him.
Someone is concerned about this land owner’s interests. Person is unnamed in the story, but he’s crucially important to the story because this anonymous person, or perhaps we could say these anonymous people. They see the landowner as aggrieved by the steward. He’s a victim of the manager’s bad management. He’s misusing the man’s funds through wastefulness. Notice, the steward here is not charged with fraud or embezzlement. That’s important. He’s not stealing from the landowner. The complaint is not that he’s stealing from the tenants. The complaint is that he’s squandering possessions. He’s wasteful.
So whoever it is, or whoever they are, they report this prodigal manager to the owner. And that prompts a meeting, verse 2, “And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’” The owner, he’s on top of it, isn’t he? Here’s the report, calls the man in. Summarily fires him. Like any careful owner would be, this is how he acts. He didn’t become rich by being neglectful, by letting things go. He’s diligent, he acts quickly. He deals with the problem, and he summarily fires this prodigal manager.
This owner is a good leader. He takes initiative. He confronts the problem. He takes decisive action, and this guy is no longer the manager and all that remains now is that this guy go back, get the books. The owner wants to take physical possession of all the accounting, so turn over the books to me. The Reverend Dr. Ibrahim Saeed says the owner requested his manager to present him the contract signed by the farmers and countersigned by the manager. In order to show how much was owing to the owner by each partner from the produce of his fields. So by getting those contracts, physical copies, all this stuff in his possession, he can then handle all the accounts personally, until he’s able to find and hire a new manager. Good leader. Good man.
Couple things to notice here. First, notice that Jesus says nothing about the steward’s response. The manager, by the way, steward, manager, same interchangeable terms. I’ll use them interchangeably, so don’t be confused by that steward, manager, but the manager is silent in the presence of the owner. He says nothing. It’s probably his best quality in that moment, isn’t it? Doesn’t answer the owner’s question. Doesn’t protest his firing. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t even plead for his job. He just takes it.
What does that tell you? He’s guilty. And he knows it. He, he knows that the master knows it. He knows the gig is up. He’s got no case to plead and so very wisely, he says nothing. First hint about his shrewdness. First time we hear him speak is in the next verse, and he’s talking to himself as he comes to himself. He formulates the plan, but in the presence of the owner, he’s silent. He says nothing. Why not? Well, because he’s guilty.
But second, cause he seems here to spot a tiny window of opportunity in the way that the master has been dealing with him. Notice the master’s simply firing him. He’s simply letting him go. Now, remember this steward, he’s pictured here, not as a slave, many stewards, oikonómos, they were slaves. But this steward is a free man. He’s hired by the master, which is, when he fires him, he’s letting him go. To go get another job, go along your way. So, this guy is a free man. He’s hired by the master, so he’s not a slave. He’s not a member of the master’s household, so for this man in particular, it means he’s, it means personal freedom, yes, to be free in his person.
But listen, this also means responsibility. This means a legal responsibility for him as a steward. This means a fiscal responsibility that he owes, not only to this man, but to the whole profession, to the whole community. His master is letting him go. That’s it. There’s no SEC investigation, pursuant to legal action. There are no public charges. There’s no yanking of his license. There’s no exacting repayment of whatever he had squandered. No, there’s no beating in the office. He’s, he’s not even a harsh word spoken.
The master is being remarkably gentle here. Wouldn’t you say? He’s not getting what he deserves. The master is merciful. The owner is merciful. The owner is kind, dealing with someone who does not deserve to be dealt with, with kindness. He’s dealing him with the utmost kindness. Nevertheless, the steward’s mind is reeling in the moment. You can imagine as he asks that first question, when he says, “What is this that I hear about you?” His heart is in his throat. The room is kind of spinning in the moment. Just lost his job. It’s very real potential for him that his troubles have really only just now started and once word gets out about the reason for his firing, man, he is through as a steward.
He’s through in this whole accounting gig. He can hang it up. If he wants the same kind of work, he wants to be entrusted again, with fiscal responsibility for any other landed gentleman, he’s gonna be forced to move far, far away, way from way this community where no one knows his name. And then he’s got to start over from scratch. That is not an attractive proposition. So at this point the manager is facing a crisis. This is an existential emergency. This has to do with his future survival. It has to do with his livelihood. You see, he takes the long slow walk back to his own office. He’s gotta do some fast thinking, which brings us to point number two.
Point number two, a prudential strategy. Number two, a prudential strategy. By prudential, I mean an intelligent strategy, a shrewd strategy. Look at verse 3, and we’re picturing the dismissed manager here. He’s, he’s left the owner’s office. He’s leaving town heading back to the estate. He’s got to go to his own office to grab the ledgers, gather all the accounting files. And on the way the manager verse 3, “says to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking away the management from me?’”
It’s kind of funny, the owner made it pretty clear. He just said, “You are no longer able to be manager.” That is present tense verb which points to a continuous present reality from that moment onward. Can’t be the manager. So from that point forward, the master no longer considers him his manager. He’s taken away the management full stop. No authority, no responsibility, no privilege, nothing. You’re not the manager. All the legal authority, responsibility, privilege is gone in that moment.
But this guy, in his mind, he’s thinking to himself, my master is taking away the management. Not has taken away, but is taking away. He’s thinking as if it’s still his, for the moment, as if he’s got still a little bit of time, as if he’s still got his job. It’s not yet over. In white collar business today, if you find somebody who needs to be let go from your company, you walk into their office and you seize everything right there. Pack up your pencils and any items of personal value in your desk, in front of me. Put them in that box and we’re going to escort you from the building. No, nobody wants him to have any access to the files in the computer. Nobody wants him touching a thing. Once he knows he’s fired, that’s it.
Here, computers were called files. So there’s a gap. The owner thinks you’re done, go get the files and come back. And in that way you’re just doing, doing what you should do and bringing back the files. This guy is saying, uh, it’s not over yet. What’s he doing here? He’s scheming. First, he ponders some other options for a new, new career, and it’s kind of funny how he goes through his thinking. He considers first manual labor, quickly dismisses it. I’m not strong enough to dig.
Digging here could refer to construction, excavation, digging footings, digging ditches. Perhaps it can refer to agriculture, digging for irrigation or tilling or planting or whatever. He’s not dismissing this option because of his pride, but rather because of reality. I mean, this guy is white collar. There are no, there’s no dirt under his fingernails. He goes home clean every night. The position he just vacated, that is high level stuff. It took him many years to qualify for it. The skill, the competency to handle that level of an operation takes a lot of time. So you got to picture this guy is an older, maybe middle aged man. He’s probably well fed too, probably put on a few pounds. So, this is an accurate self, self-assessment. I am not strong enough to dig. Takes one look in the mirror. Not happening.
Another option, since he likes food is to beg for it, okay? So the term he uses, the grammar here, he’s imagining a future as a mendicant beggar. Someone who’s got a career in begging, panhandling in the streets. It’s probably despair talking of this moment, cause he really doesn’t consider it long. But he imagines there begging money from all of his former business associates. Can them see them walking by. And oh, Charlie is that you? Yeah, here’s a, here’s a denarius. They all know the reason for his dismissal. He can’t bear the shame of that.
So he snaps back to reality, brushes that aside. I’m ashamed to beg. Verse 4 though he pulls himself together. And he says, again, it’s pictured as him having a eureka moment, a sudden burst of inspiration. “I have decided what to do.” Literally, it’s I know what I should do. I know. We don’t find out what the plan is until he executes on the plan in the next three verses. Takes action, moves quickly. That’s the sense of urgency that’s there. It goes from I know and then boom, he’s doing it.
But what do we learn from this eureka moment? It’s the why of the plan. He gives us his reason. His motivation. It goes from I know, and then the reason why, what he’s after. It’s in order that, I know what I should do in order that, purpose clause. In order that when I am removed from management, people “may receive me into their houses.” He has come up with a perfect strategy and it’s not just to get room and board. He’s not just looking for hospitality. His strategy is to find a new place of employment, not as a digger, not as a beggar, but as a steward again. He wants to be a manager. He wants his job back. Maybe not with this man, but he wants his job back because he wants the gravy train to continue. Pretty good gig if you can get it.
He’s ruined the opportunity with his old boss, but it doesn’t mean he can’t find new employment elsewhere with perhaps somebody else. If he can just swing this whole situation to his favor. This guy’s smart, he’s cunning. He’s even daring since his plan involves, and here’s a third point for your outline if you’re building one.
Third point, it’s a brazen and really, number three, a deceitful generosity. That’s the execution of his strategy is, number three, a deceitful generosity. In verses 5-7, we see that strategy in action. It says, “So summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘how much do you owe my master?’ He said, A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”
Now, here is one of a number of major points, but here’s one of the major points of the parable that interpreters vary on, and they vary widely. They disagree on several points, but this has to be the most consequential of those points. There’s a couple of interpretive questions I’ll, a set of questions I’ll pose to you to help you see why there’s such a divergence of opinions on this. First, what do we see the manager doing here? What is he doing by reducing the amounts of the bills? Is he just simply forgoing his commission? Or did he cheat them to begin with and how he, now he’s just removing the cheat? Were the charges inflated from the start and now he’s removed the inflation? Is that what’s going on? Or something else?
Second, maybe, depending on how we answer the first question, the first set of questions, does any of this reflect on the character of the landowner? Have he and this steward been cooperating together? Or perhaps, it’s not the steward and the landowner, but the steward and the debtors. Maybe they are complicit in the two of them deceiving the landowner, and that’s what’s going on. Are the tenants in on the plan to cheat the owner of money that he’s owed? Or are they ignorant? Are they completely in the dark here?
Wide, varied interpretations, some of them quite complex. I’ll try to simplify all that, but there are some who see the master and the steward as conspiring together to cheat the other farmers. That is, the two of them they’re in, they’re in cahoots. They jacked up the rent, they added a hundred percent increase on the oil. This olive oil basically is, is fuel. I mean it provides for cooking, that’s how we are familiar with it today, but they lit lamps with it. So, this is their lights at night, very important.
So, they added this hundred percent increase on the oil and a twenty five percent increase on the wheat. The original bill was, is eighty and then they jacked up another, took a twenty and added a twenty five percent increase. So now it’s a hundred measures of wheat. Is that what they’ve done? As we’ve already seen, though, and as we have yet to see, the master’s character is such that he could not be involved in this kind of a scam. He’s not in cahoots with the steward to cheat the other farmers. He couldn’t try to get away with something like this. He could try it, but it wouldn’t work for long. Any businessman who is considering the use of his property, any businessman once they figured out the outrageous injustice of charging such high rents, they take their business elsewhere.
Besides that, if the owner were a man of disreputable character, what explains the report that was brought to him by that anonymous concerned party in verse 1? Who’d care to do that? Or the way that he deals with this prodigal manager in verse 2? Did he call him in and just give him a little slap on the wrist? Perhaps the steward is acting alone. Maybe he’s cheating the tenants without the master’s knowledge? Well, that would mean first, that he’s inflated the bills on his own to an incredibly high level, and it also means, secondly, that, that the owner is utterly oblivious to all this going on underneath his nose. He’s totally ignorant. Is that true? That’s what many commentators believe.
But listen, that view really doesn’t fit the evidence here. It doesn’t line up with what Jesus has described in telling the story, and it doesn’t fit the evidence of the culture either. First of all, as the legal agent of the master’s estate, the steward received a salary from the master. He’s being paid and he’s being very well paid. That’s why he’s got that job. He also receives an official fee from the farmers for his role in awarding contracts and brokering and creating contracts. There’s a fee for every transaction that’s legal, justifiable. It’s also likely he’s got a little something coming to him under the table from his master’s tenants as well, little tokens and gratuities were often and commonly practiced back then.
Secondly, though, so he’s well paid. He’s, he’s not charged actually with greed and fraud and embezzlement, he’s charged with squandering. And then secondly, even if he wanted to cheat his master’s tenants, all these contracts he creates, they’re not sealed and secured in such a way that no one else can review them. One commentator cites a Mishnaic passage that says this, “Agents may not write contracts of share tendencies or fixed rate tendencies except with the knowledge and agreement of both parties and the tenant must pay the fee.”
So, in other words, the contract is legally binding only when both parties are present in front of each other. When the tenant and the agent, that is here, the agent is a steward acting on behalf of the owner. When they both are there present and they both sign and countersign the contract. And after that contract is signed, in the presence becomes a matter of public record. Anybody can look at that contract. So, if a greedy larcenous steward is trying to inflate the bills on his own in secret, especially to the tune of a hundred percent increase on oil, twenty five percent increase on wheat. Listen, tenants aren’t going to tolerate that for one moment. The owner has access to all this anyway. He’s keeping accounts as well. He’s checking in from time to time, but the tenants they’re not going to allow that. They’re going to run directly to the master, complain about this jacked up rate.
This brings us to thirdly, the master, the landowner. Again, Jesus is not pictured the kind of man who is disengaged. This guy isn’t aloof. This isn’t a small thing to him, like some estate out in the country. This man is a decisive, take charge, hands on kind of a leader. He reacts quickly. He’s intelligent, conscientious, as a landowner. He has access to tenant contracts at any time. There is no way that a rogue steward could on his own, inflate the bills and get away with it.
“The contract is legally binding only when both parties are present in front of each other.”Travis Allen
Another view is that the steward is colluding with the tenants to cheat the master. That is this, the steward comes in, reduces their bills, quite dramatically reduces. And the tenant farmers with him rejoice in that secret deal, that little handshake they had in a smoke-filled dark room. They share some of the money with him. So steward sits with farmers, forging contracts together in the dark, in secret, pulling one over on the old man. Look, a conspiracy to embezzle money from the landowner. That doesn’t make sense either. Not according to what we know.
Again, these tenants, they’re basically business partners with the landowner. They, they share in each other’s fortune and famine. They rise and fall together, these guys. So to conspire with one rogue steward, it might work in the near term. Might work for one time. But it’s incredibly short sighted and it’s so foolish that it wouldn’t happen, ever. No one would ever do business with these guys again. They’d suffer such shame, such damage to their reputations. No one would rent land to them again. They’d be out of farming. Better choose another career, maybe like accounting or something.
There are other views as well, and, and one that is quite complicated and, and fruitless to mention. But, but let’s take another pass at the verses and see what’s really going on here. Notice that the steward, this manager, notice, notice what he does in verse 5. He summons his master’s debtors. That is, he has the authority as steward, and authority delegated to him by the owner. He has the authority to summon them to himself. To call them into an unscheduled meeting, and this is an unscheduled meeting.
Socially, you need to understand on the social ladder, these wealthy farmers are his superiors. But legally, in this situation, he has the authority because he represents the owner. He can’t take advantage of that authority order, order them around willy nilly, but they are inclined to respond when he calls. When he summons, they come. Now we know, because we’ve read. We know, because Jesus has said, we know he’s fired. So technically speaking, we all know he no longer has this authority. But the farmers don’t know that yet.
By summoning them now, it is not at harvest time, not at bill paying time. He’s summoning them off schedule, not when rent is due. They’re going to see this summoning, this meeting as totally out of the ordinary. They’d know something’s up. They know something irregular is going on and they’re going to expect a very good explanation coming out of this inconvenience to their schedule. They’re going to get one.
But notice also how he summons the debtors, it says one by one. And why is that? He doesn’t want them talking to each other. He wants to keep them in the dark as long as possible. So once, because once his plan gets back to the owner, it’s over. He’s got to do this now. He’s got to do it quickly, in haste. So he says to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” Just to clarify, he’s not looking for information here. He knows exactly what this farmer owes his master. He’s got the farmer’s contract in his files.
So when the farmer arrives, he pulls out the man’s contract, hands it to him, and has him read the amount owed. Why does he want this man to recite his debt out loud? Why does he want him to verbalize it? For dramatic effect. When the farmer speaks out loud, the amount of his debt, when he hears that big figure in his own voice. That’s a big number. It punctuates, doesn’t it? The level of generosity, it’s about to befall him, totally unexpectedly. “Summoning his master’s debtor one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master? He said a hundred measures of oil.’” Hangs in the air.
“He said to him,” good news, “take out your bill, sit down quickly,” why does he gotta do it quickly? He’s in a hurry. “and write fifty.” He’s in a hurry. In fact, he’s in enough of a hurry, he’s not thinking here of percentages. He’s not interested in doing math. He’s simplifying this, and he’s applying an across the board five hundred denarii discount to every single one of the bills. So he calls in the next man verse 7, “And he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘take your bill and write eighty.’”
I’m not gonna do the math now. I’m not going to show you all my work, but it works out. This is another five hundred denarii reduction of the bill. Everyone’s getting the same thing. This isn’t a percentage of the gross, it’s, it’s five hundred for every single person. Everyone is getting the same thing, so just in case they do happen to talk on the way out. And they’re going to, but there’s no opportunity here for complaining.
The net effect is a five hundred denarii gift, maybe seventy-five thousand and upwards of seventy-five thousand dollars in today’s money. That, that gift comes from the master. It, it comes to each one of these tenant farmers. And it’s totally unexpected, and each gift comes to them, note, by the hand of this wily little thieving, conniving steward. You can bet he slipped in some comments in there about his role in persuading the landowner, this is a good gesture. About giving him the idea. About all the work that he’s going through to execute on. This guy is a total scoundrel, isn’t he?
None of these farmers know that the steward is no longer the steward. None of them know that he’s not the authorized agent to discount their bill. None of them know that he has schemed to ingratiate himself to them, hoping for a job from them in the future. They’re completely in the dark. They got a good relationship with the landowner and the last thing they want to do is conspire to cheat him. So all of them know the character of this landowner so, it wouldn’t be hard for them mentally to make the leap to see this gift as consistent with the landowner’s very generous nature. I mean, I knew he was a good guy, but wow, this is great.
What’s the potential problem? What’s the little wrinkle in the plan? Well, once word gets back to the landowner, which it eventually does, verse 8, we might wonder why the master didn’t just expose this steward. Why he doesn’t go around and reveal the deceitful nature of this generosity? That this little gift isn’t a gift. Why doesn’t he go and null and void all these fraudulent contracts to revert back to the original contract? Why would he simply do that? What is it that compels the master to keep his lips shut?
First, because we need to understand he’s, he’s not American, he’s Semitic. It’s a cultural issue here. He’s, he’s not a western thinker. He’s eastern in his thinking. He’s from an oriental shame, honor culture. So, this wealthy gentleman, he’s never going to shame his partners by reneging on the gift, no matter how it came about. And furthermore, he never also in the same breath, sacrifice his own honor. He would rather suffer the financial loss than bear the public disgrace. The shame that he has been duped and outwitted by this wily little steward. “I could get my hands on him.”
But second, imagine the public relations sensation this guy would be, instantly. I mean, all of his tenants going out and rejoicing in public, over the master’s, unexpected generosity. This is incredibly liberal gift, unexpected, not on schedule. Totally takes them by surprise. They’d be elated. Yeah, it’s gotta be the talk of the town. Everybody buying him drinks, everybody invited me buying him dinner. Oh no, let me pay for that. It’s your money after all. He’s gonna be praised by everyone and this is going to spread outside this community, out into the region even further. For this kindness and this generosity.
Look, if he spent twice the amount of money that he lost in these discounts, he could not have bought the kind of press that he’s getting out of this. He couldn’t have purchased the kind of goodwill that’s being reported about him because of this act. Believe me, this just bought him the permanent loyalty of all of his current tenants. And it secures him his future business as well. This guy is going to have no problem from here onward, leasing land to the very best, most qualified tenants. So, in the hands of this crafty little steward, this shrewd manager, this total scoundrel. An existential emergency birthed a prudential strategy. It was worked out in a deceitful generosity.
We come to a final point, from the lips of the master. Number four, a justifiable eulogy. A justifiable eulogy. Here’s the conclusion of the parable, first part of verse 8. “The master commended,” the word praised. That’s literally the word there. “He praised the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” It’s easy to see why people may be puzzled by that, but as T.W. Manson puts it, The differences between I applaud the dishonest steward because he acted cleverly, and I applaud the clever steward because he acted dishonestly. He’s not commending his dishonesty, but his cleverness.”
I mean, what can he say? I mean, this dishonest manager put him in quite a spot. Quite surprisingly, it turned out in a way he could never have imagined, and not for the worse for him either. The tenant farmers are rejoicing. The master’s public images skyrocketed, shot through the roof. The jobless steward’s prospects are looking pretty bright. The master is not praising his dishonesty though. Rather, his shrewdness. The master can despise the unrighteousness of the plan, and at the same time, in the same mind he could admire the cleverness of it all.
And we understand this, don’t we? We said earlier, we enjoy similar stories about hucksters and con artists. I mean, we, we despise the brazenness of their dishonesty. We could see the consequences, terrible consequences of their unrighteousness. But we also enjoying reading, watching the clever cons that they pull on other people. Same thing here. You can imagine the disciples listening to Jesus. Others as well, they love this story. This is amazing.
The word translated shrewd here, is phronimos. Phronimos, which refers to a kind of worldly wisdom. This phronimos, phronimos is the skillful application of cunning for the sake of self-preservation. It’s cunn, being cunning because he’s got his own interest, his self-preservation to think of. It’s what we see in the unjust steward. He’s clearly unscrupulous. He deserves a very public and a very severe punishment for all this. But he did what he had to do to his, to ensure his survival here. That part, at the very least is commendable. And that’s what Jesus thinks anyway.
As he concludes the parable, verse 8. Draws our attention to the implications. “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” John Calvin writes, “To make donations out of what belongs to another man is an action which is very far from deserving applause. And who would patiently endure that an unprincipled villain should rob him of his property and give it away according to his fancy?” Think again about the plan hatched in the mind of that unjust, unrighteous, unscrupulous steward. What was, what was it that emboldened this man in the first place? What gave him the opportunity or the idea to attempt such a thing? Wasn’t it the kindness of the master? The patience of the owner in dealing with this wasteful steward?
It became an occasion for him to take additional advantage. How much more, beloved, should we consider that we serve such a kind and merciful God? Full of goodness and grace. That we would pursue excellence in the stewardship of our own lives. That we would not be mediocre Christians. But that instead, we would be excellent stewards of all the resources that he’s given us. Good stewards of our time. Good stewards of our money. Good stewards of our words. Good stewards of our thought life. Good stewards of everything God’s put in our care.
I interrupted John Calvin, but he’s got more to say. He goes on saying, “Christ means that ungodly and worldly men are more industrious and skillful in conducting the affairs of this fading life than the children of God are anxious to obtain the heavenly and eternal life. Or, careful to make it the subject of their study and meditation.” Calvin says, “By this comparison. He [that is Jesus], charges us with a highly criminal indifference in not providing for the future, with at least as much earnestness as ungodly men display by attending to their own interests in this world.
“How disgraceful is it that the children of light whom God enlightens by his spirit and word should slumber and neglect the hope of eternal blessedness, held out to them while worldly men are so eagerly bent on their own accommodations and so provident and sagacious.” Sagacious meaning wise. How great, how disgraceful indeed. May none of us be like that unrighteous steward. Taking our Lord’s grace for granted. May we not see his patience as a reason to not repent of our sins. Viewing his mercy as a reason to take more advantage. Let us instead take hold of our stewardship. We all start out as prodigals, wasteful in our stewardship.
But let this encourage us to be thoughtful Christians, purposeful, intentional in our stewardship, and I’m happy to say that Grace Church does exactly that. Most of you have shown such generosity in your giving. Such cheerfulness in supporting the work of the ministry as partners in this glorious gospel of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. It has been an abiding source of joy to me. And I know for so many others, it’s been a weekly benediction, a reason for thanksgiving, that we have the privilege of ministering together in this church, isn’t it?
But there’s more to learn about our stewardship as we can tell. Jesus is just getting started laying down this story as a foundation to get our attention. And by contrast, by continuation, and by contrast to see ourselves in contrast to the steward of doing how much more should we. How much more should we be serving our Lord? And we’ll come back to all those implications next Sunday.